One Week after the Beirut Catastrophe, the Old Lebanese Nomenklatura Trying to Survive

The military judge investigating the explosion at the Beirut port on August 4 has very special ties to the political class. Judge Akiki is married to the niece of Parliament President Nabih Berri, having this post since 1992.

After the devastating catastrophe, Berri, who is also the head of the Shiite Amal Movement, enraged the Lebanese with a poem in which he wrote that Beirut would rise from the ashes like a phoenix.

The arrests of 16 port workers seem irrelevant in light of new allegations against the government. According to Reuters, security experts reportedly warned the Lebanese government of devastating consequences of an explosion in the port of Beirut in July this year. The 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that probably led to the explosion were explicitly mentioned.

The chemicals are said to have been stored unsecured in the port for almost seven years. According to the report, the warning from the security experts went to Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who has since resigned, and President Michel Aoun. In the latest report by the Directorate-General for State Security, there was a reference to a letter to the two politicians, sent just two weeks prior to the catastrophe.

President Aoun points to limited power he has

“I warned you that this could destroy Beirut if it exploded,” Reuters quoted an insider. Diab had taken off responsibility in a televised address on Monday evening. His government has nothing to do with the corrupt system, so the headline of his statement.

President Aoun, who has been in office since 2016, said during a visit to the destroyed port last Friday that he was first informed about the dangerous cargo in the port almost three weeks ago. He then ordered the military and security authorities “to do what is necessary”. He couldn’t have done more, said Aoun. He has no authority over the port. When asked by a journalist whether he should have checked that his order was being followed, Aoun said, “Do you know how many problems I have?“

In an interview with the German „Süddeutsche Zeitung“, a high-ranking Lebanese diplomat firmly denied that Hezbollah had controlled the entire port of Beirut.

He admitted, however, that civilian members of this hybrid of party and militia occupied leading positions in the port’s administration and that the military arm of the Hezbollah movement maintained objects on the premises beyond the control of the state organs. He does not believe that such secret rooms or buildings were located near or even under warehouse number twelve, in which the detonated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate were stored.

Pictures from a TV broadcaster showed a tunnel system that investigators discovered under the destroyed grain silo. A diplomat from Europe who was familiar with the investigation did not want to decide whether this was about the sewage disposal of the neighborhoods near the port, the supply and pipeline shafts of the silo or actually a possible secret facility of Hezbollah, as some quickly reported. “At this point in time, no serious statement can be made,” he said.

The Lebanese army also responded to the reports with a statement on Facebook. In the announcement, they call on the media and social networks not to spread the “rumors and misinformation”. These are “underground operating rooms” in which employees work in shifts.

Will Diab and Aoun now also be investigated?

The security authorities are also in need of an explanation. On Monday, Judge Ghassan El Khoury questioned the head of security, Tony Saliba, at the Palace of Justice. According to the Lebanese daily „an-Nahar“, a Lebanese security delegation will soon be traveling to Cyprus to interview the former owner of the cargo ship Rhosus, who transported the ammonium nitrate. The Cypriot police have already interrogated Russian businessman Igor Grechushkin at the request of the Lebanese police.

It is still not clear, whether or not investigations will be directed against Diab and Aoun. In any case, the president himself said last Friday that justice would not distinguish between the “big” and the “small”. And he promised: “There won’t be a justice like every time that brings the little ones to justice and lets the big ones get away with it.”

Hezbollah uses social networks as propaganda tool

The rumors that Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab could hand in his resignation were only circulating for a few minutes on Monday, when conspicuously identical solidarity addresses flooded the Internet. The slogan “The people are with you, Hassan” quickly became the most shared sentence on the short message service Twitter in Lebanon. Should Diab have been online in these minutes, the support should have surprised him – in the days before the picture was different, almost in unison, people demanded that his government should finally resign. According to experts, the warm words for the failed prime minister can be traced back to an orchestrated action by the Shiite Hezbollah, which Diab supports. The hybrid of party and militia is now also fighting its battles in the digital space, it has legions of accounts in social media that carry their messages out into the world.

Less than seven months after taking office and six days after the explosion on August 4th in the port of Beirut, the 61-year-old Prime Minister announced that he would resign alongside with all remaining ministers, some ministers and department heads had quit their duties themselves even before Diab’s announcement. He ended his last speech, which contained little self-criticism with the formula “God save Lebanon”, which he repeated three times.

The 84-year-old Aoun, whose health is rumored to be not stable, will play a key role in the negotiations on a new cabinet. According to the constitution, he is the one who can appoint candidates for the office of prime minister to form a cabinet. As a former general of a Christian militia, Aoun has made a pact with the Shiite Hezbollah – a union of minorities, together stronger than the Sunni Muslims, who numerically make up the largest of the 17 recognized Lebanese denominations. Since the National Pact of 1943, they have always appointed the prime minister – most recently Hassan Diab, however, one who was downright Hezbollah-friendly. Diab’s predecessor Saad Hariri, whose father Rafik was allegedly murdered by Hezbollah members in 2005, had an at least ambivalent relationship with the power bloc around Aoun and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for this reason alone. And although he has made several comebacks in the role of prime minister in the past, he and his party are likely to remain outside the power poker of Beirut, which is now beginning.

Hezbollah-affiliated media reported on Tuesday that Aoun’s son-in-law and ex-foreign minister Gebran Bassil had met with parliamentarian Nabih Berri, who has been in office for 28 years, a confidante of Nasrallah. The result of the conversation in the back room: a double no – no early elections, no independent cabinet of technocrats. A government of national unity has priority.

The Lebanese media said that President Aoun did not intend to begin formal negotiations on such a government until the beginning of next week, and a name for the office of prime minister was already circulating. Accordingly, the 66-year-old lawyer Nawaf Salam is a candidate. As Lebanon’s long-time ambassador to the United Nations and acting judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, he is without a doubt one of the most qualified and experienced people to be considered for this job.

Beirut’s population demand nothing less than a complete replacement of the power elite, and in some cases also an overcoming of the system based on proportional representation, which was originally intended to ensure that the various religious groups had a share in power after the civil war. It is hard to imagine that Hezbollah, which is close to Iran, will voluntarily make its dominant position in the state available – and get the approval of the mullahs in Tehran who are striving for regional dominance.

All publishing rights and copyrights reserved to MENA Research and Study Center